The Underlying Truth Behind Eating Disorder’s
Many of us understand that “eating disorders aren’t about food or weight.” Because it’s the number one phrase that gets shouted from the rooftops by eating disorder sufferers and eating disorder support organisations and it is such a damaging misconception.
But what many people still don’t understand is what they are actually about. I feel like people avoid talking about what eating disorders are about because they are SO complex, there are often many, many layers and an accumulation of different factors. It gets complicated.
The most common phrase I hear…“I know that eating disorders aren’t about food or weight…it’s about control.” Yeah. Often this is the case, the desire for control is hugely common but it’s a terribly over simplified explanation. The reasons behind the disorder are as individual as the sufferer him/herself, so it’s risky territory listing possible causes…But I’m writing this in the hope that it helps to broaden understanding of this illness and to shed some light into some of the darker, less spoken about, underlying issues.
It’s not about food or weight…it’s about feeling unsafe in the world. It’s about feeling like we can’t trust anyone, not even ourselves. The eating disorder becomes “the reliable one”. It’s about the feelings we can’t verbalise, that can’t be expressed through words so we try to “say” it with our bodies. It’s about an extreme, intense feeling of being inadequate. Like nothing we do or say or feel is “right”. “Not thin enough” often means something more painful to admit; that we are not enough.
It’s about feeling overwhelmed by life. Like nothing makes sense. Nothing is simple. The eating disorder gives us a sense of calm…to an outsider our life may look like it is in absolute chaos but it gives us the false sense of security we so desperately need. Problems that seem too big and complicated to deal with, feelings that are uncomfortable to sit with; the eating disorder provides us with simple, concrete answers to our distress. “Our bodies are the problem and we need to fix the problem by losing weight”.
It’s about needing to feel loved and comforted but feeling unworthy of real love and comfort. It’s about hating having needs and desires. For some of us, needs make us feel greedy and selfish. For some of us, having needs means we can easily get hurt if those needs are not met. For some of us, we don’t believe we deserve to have our needs met. We try to convince ourselves that we don’t need anything by avoiding food, one of our greatest primal needs.
It’s about having low self-esteem. It’s about more than that; it’s about self-hatred- a self-hatred that could be there for another huge list of reasons. Maybe a loved one has broken our trust or maybe we have been abused: emotionally, physically or sexually. We may have done things we deeply regret. We may blame ourselves for painful experiences that have happened in our lives. We may not even know why that self-hatred is there but we feel it in our core. It’s something so deep down, something in us that we believe to be dark, dangerous and disgustingly horrible. We believe we are “bad” people and deserve to be punished. We engage in behaviours because we feel like we deserve to die a slow and painful death. We deserve this miserable life. It’s about debilitating anxiety and/or depression that we struggle to deal with so we use the eating disorder to cope. Some of us spend years swinging between depression and the eating disorder, when one gets better, the other gets worse.
It’s about being paralysed by perfectionism; in every sense of the word. Many of us have obsessive-compulsive personalities and expectations that are so high we constantly feel like we are failing. We put ridiculous amounts of pressure on ourselves to be “the best”. We compare ourselves to everyone around us and constantly feel like we are falling behind.
It’s about the disgust we have for our bodies. Some of us have been teased and shamed for our weight by kids in the playground, brothers or sisters, mothers or fathers. Some of us feel embarrassed by our changing bodies as we go through puberty. Some of us blame our bodies for acts of violation committed against us. Somehow, our bodies have betrayed us.
It’s about the environment we grew up in. Some of us grew up witnessing the messy divorce of our parents, some of us experienced the death of an important loved one, and some of us were foster children who moved from household to household. Some of us were bullied for being poor or bullied for being rich. Some of us grew up in chaotic households. For some of us, our parents were distant, for others our parents were overbearing and overprotective.
It’s about secrecy and silence. We are all silently screaming for something; love, help, escape, forgiveness, support, comfort. We use our bodies and behaviours to communicate instead of our voices.
It’s about fear. We are afraid of growing up, afraid of staying young. Afraid of our future, afraid of our past. Some of us are afraid of failure, some of us are afraid of success. Afraid of being too much or not enough. Some of us are scared we will not be brilliant or amazing or unique or rich or famous or inspiring or important or seen…or LOVED. We are afraid we will never find someone who will love us, unconditionally and some of us are afraid we will. Some of us are afraid of both. It’s these contradictions that can make life so confusing, scary and difficult to deal with.
It’s about holding onto something that gives us an identity. We are afraid that without the eating disorder, we are nothing. In some weird way, we think it makes us strong. We believe our eating disorder masks our fear, our shame, and our vulnerability. The things, we believe, make us weak.
It’s about painful feelings and our belief that we are unable to deal with them so we use the eating disorder to numb the sadness, anger, hurt, shame, guilt, hopelessness, fear etc.
It’s about being an extremely sensitive soul. We feel things deeply and intensely. We are affected by others emotions easily and often take on their pain. Others’ feelings and problems become ours. We are emotionally reactive; we cry at the drop of a hat, the daily news makes our heart hurt and our mood plummet. We take things personally and over think everything. We feel the weight of the world on our shoulders, like it is our responsibility to save the world.
It’s about subconsciously internalising the “Western Beauty Ideal” we are faced with day in and day out. It’s about being bombarded with advertising that is constantly telling us we are not good enough.
It’s about loneliness. Like we don’t fit in or belong anywhere. Like no one understands us. Like we are somehow completely different to the rest of the human population. It doesn’t matter how many friends or family we have around us, this is a loneliness, an emptiness that we believe cannot be filled.
It’s about survival. It helped us to survive and cope with some horrific and painful life experiences.
It’s about being passive. Many of us, put others first at a huge cost to our own health and happiness. We say yes when we mean no and no when we mean yes. We struggle with being assertive and as a result often get taken advantage of. This only feeds into our unworthiness.
It’s about privacy, having something that is ours and only ours. Something no one else can touch.
It’s not about weight, but for some of us, it is. However, not in the way you’d think. Some of us want to shrink so that we become invisible. We want to become as small as we feel. We want to hide away. Our shrinking body becomes a metaphor for our shrinking soul. Some of us want to become bigger so we can hide behind our weight. So that our body fat becomes our protection. So we become “undesirable” to men or women. So we don’t have to face relationships or intimacy or our sexuality. Things that terrify us. Our bodies reflect how we feel about ourselves on the inside. What drains our spirit, drains our body.
It’s about being in so much emotional pain that you can’t even begin to allow yourself to feel it or acknowledge it, the pain the eating disorder brings seems like a blessing in comparison. We use the eating disorder to avoid and distract ourselves from all the things that are really going on, inside.
More often than not, it’s an accumulation of any number of these thoughts, feelings, beliefs and experiences and there is bound to be plenty of other influencing factors that I haven’t listed. Everyone is different. This is just a list of some of the more common causes that I know of from experience living with my own eating disorder and being close to many others who have eating disorders, it is by no means the ‘absolute’ list.
Please also know that insight into these reasons takes time in therapy and a lot of self reflection and personal development…a sufferer doesn’t make a conscious decision to develop an eating disorder so they can avoid feeling emotional pain, for example.
This is all going on subconsciously. The eating disorder masks all of this and convinces us that our only problem is that we are fat. So if someone you care about is struggling with an eating disorder, instead of telling them to “just eat”, ask them what they believe is behind their eating disorder and don’t take “I’m just fat” as a valid answer…because that is never the answer. No matter how strongly they feel that in the moment, it almost always goes much deeper than that.
Help us stop the silence. Let’s start talking about this on a deeper, less superficial level.
One of the most important steps towards recovery involves allowing us to explore and express our own personal stories. We need to understand why we have developed an eating disorder and how it serves us before we have any hope of true recovery.